A few weeks ago in Redmond, I saw a talk given by Johnny Lee. He has the most popular video on YouTube EVER. The kicker is that it is not pornographic, violent, or funny. It’s an educational video about how to hack a Nintendo Wii controller and make a 3D VR Headtracking device. He also has other cool Wii controller projects like creating a super cheap electronic whiteboard. I was inspired by this particular project and got myself a Wii controller at the Silk Market for about $25. Next I needed some Infrared LEDs to make a pen. Where in China do you go to find some IR LEDs? I’m sure all of them are made here, but where do they sell them? First, I tried ebay and emailed a guy to ask if he would deliver to Beijing. One problem is that I don’t really know my own address. But, we didn’t even get to that problem because he never answered back. Next, I asked a friend that’s a native of Beijing that is now in Redmond, how I would find some LEDs. He emailed me a map.
“A” is where I work. “B” is where I want to go. He said that it was near the Zhichun Lu subway station. Once I walked about 3/4 of a mile down the road from my work, I walked into a big building by the subway station. A guy that looked like building security caught me and started speaking in Chinese. I said, “Electronics Market?” and pointed inside. He had no idea what I was talking about. I smiled politely and started to leave. As I was leaving, I held a door open for another guy, and I thought I heard him say, “Thank you.” I turned around and asked in my best Chinese, “Do you speak English?” He said, “Yes.” I asked him in English, “Do you know where the Electronics Market is?” He pointed me in a direction that was completely contrary to the map and said it was about 1/2 km. I nodded thank you. After some thought, I decided to trust the map. I walked about another 1/2 km in the opposite direction that the man pointed me in. I passed hotels and banks, but no electronics mall. I found a building that somewhat looked like a retail outlet. When I went inside, I was blown away. It was like the Digi-Key catalog came to life. It was 4 huge floors of all kinds of electronics – switches, LEDs, wires, circuits, chips, power supplies, motors and servos, tools, etc, etc. Aisles up on aisles of every conceivable electronic part you could imagine. For a robot hobbyist like me, it’s hard to describe the instant feeling I got as this sight unfolded before me. I have spent countless hours poring over pages of catalogs that contained these items, and now that there was aisles and aisles of it all in front of me to see and examine… it almost felt naughty.
However, I was quickly reminded of the Greek myth of Tantalus. He had angered the Gods and as his punishment he was forced to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree. When he was hungry, he would reach for the fruit, but the tree grew taller just out of reach. When he was thirsty, he would bend down for a drink, and the water receded just out of reach.
And just like Tantalus, even though I could see every imaginable electronic component I have ever dreamed of playing with, when I spoke to the vendors, I might as well have been on another planet. I didn’t know how to pantomime “infrared LED at 950 nanometers.” After stopping at a few stalls, I finally wrote it down where it seemed like they had quite an assortment of LEDs. She wrote down a stall number for me. I thanked her and went on my way to find the stall. I wrote down “IR LED 950 nm” on a piece of paper again for the new lady. She crossed out 950, and wrote 940. Good enough! I’ll take five! I showed her five fingers and said the word for five. She repeated, but added what sounded like the word for “hundred.” I quickly got to the point. “How much?” Usually, this would prompt some kind of number which I could sometimes understand, or the store vendor would punch out the number on a calculator. This lady did neither. She obviously had some conditions and caveats and spoke for a while. I repeated, how much? There was another lady that was looking on, and I thought she was a customer, but it ended up that she also worked at the store. They brought out a box and opened it. The LEDs were bagged in bags of 500. Uh-oh. I didn’t want 500. I actually wanted just one. The new lady started saying something to me for a while. It ended up that a bag of 500 was 150 Yuan ($25) (.30 Yuan each). I repeated, “5”! And I wrote down an offer. 10 LEDs for 10 Yuan. I’d be happy to walk out of here paying a $1.50. She crossed out my 10, and wrote 3. I was in some kind of wacko bizarro world. She was negotiating backwards! I said OK, and paid her the 3 Yuan and got my 10 LEDs. I think she just took pity on me. Or, I just found the most honest Chinese person in China. Perhaps it was a bit of both.
Anyway, the rest of the evening was spent wandering around aisles drooling at all the available equipment and components. I’ll have to talk with the wife, but I’m hoping I can grab an oscilloscope (as well as a huge bag of random electronic components) before I go home.